“He Was Loaded with Apparent Contradictions”: DP Andrij Parekh on The Catcher Was a Spy
In 2005, Filmmaker hailed Andrij Parekh as one of its 25 New Faces of Independent Film. Since then, the New York-based DP has gone on to shoot a number of major films and series: Blue Valentine, The Zookeeper’s Wife and HBO’s Show Me a Hero, to name a few. Parekh served as the DP on The Catcher Was a Spy, a period drama starring Paul Rudd as a professional baseball player (Moe Berg) who was tapped to become a spy during World War II. Ahead of the film’s premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Parekh spoke with Filmmaker about the film’s enigmatic protagonist, his love for pre-production and how Prague’s “great ceilings” inspired him to shoot the film in a 1:1.85 aspect ratio.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Parekh: I received the script from longtime colleague Tatiana Kelly, who produced the film. I was immediately hooked by the possibility of a WWII psychological spy thriller, and then had a Skype meeting with Ben Lewin and subsequent personal meeting at his home in L.A. I think I was recommended to Ben because in the previous year I had shot The Zookeeper’s Wife in Prague, where Catcher was also shooting. I think my filmmaking experience in the Czech Republic made me quite attractive to Ben and the producers; I had experience with shooting locally, had previously assembled an excellent crew and was a big fan of working and living in Prague.
Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?
Parekh: The most difficult challenge that this film provided was to get inside of the head of the main character, Moe Berg, who was (and is) woefully enigmatic and difficult to psychologically understand. The film in many ways is a search for Moe’s identity. As a man, he was a Princeton educated Jewish man who spoke 10 languages and played professional baseball, was bisexual and always wore the same grey suit and in the 1930s. He was loaded with apparent contradictions and even after one reads his biography by Nicholas Dawidoff, one is left only with a few pieces of the psychological puzzle and no complete sense of Berg. And though he’s the hero of the film, he’s a total anti-hero. So cinematically we were constantly trying to get into Berg’s mind. In lieu of this search, director Ben Lewin and I conceived of a very “traditional” and naturalistic camera and lighting approach. The film is told for the most part from an omniscient POV – one that carefully studies each move that Berg made.
From a production standpoint, this film was very complicated, as we had a great cast, but that generally equates to difficulty in scheduling, as you are always trying to shoot out such high in-demand actors. And we had only 31 days, including a day at Fenway in Boston. We also had to cheat a number of locations around the world – Boston, New York, Washington, Geneva, Rome, the Italian Coast, Japan – and all in Prague! Going in to the film I was aware of our modest post VFX budget, and thus it was really important how we shot the film; to not rely on VFX, or at least minimally, and to not expect to “fix it in post.” And thus we looked for locations that would serve the story and locale of each scene, and I worked closely with production designer Luciana Arrighi to create the illusion.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Parekh: I love pre-production, because in many ways it’s the time where one devises the look of a film. I use a variety of visual sources, mainly painting and photography, and of course other films provide a strong jumping off point for the visual approach. When working with any director, after discussing the script at length, I then put together a visual presentation, which is my distillation of the shared ideas and an opportunity to present my visual design for the film – which of course is a moment to further discuss and critique and refine. And then I like to shotlist separately from the director, and then we shotlist together. Shot listing alone is my time to pre-visualize the film.
There is a favorite Czech painter whose work I was introduced to when I studied at FAMU in the late ’90s, Jakub Schikaneder, whose work I adore. His paintings, from the early 20th century that depict Prague at night, have a softness in tone and palate and an openness in the blacks that I love. Three films greatly informed our visual language and approach: The Conformist for its visual exploration of an enigmatic hero, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for its simplicity and grace as a classic spy film and The Lives of Others for its color palate and psychology in a world of espionage. We debated between 1:2.39 versus 1:1.85, and shot tests on location. Prague had so many great ceilings that we went 1:1.85!
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Parekh: Time and money. The same story as usual!
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Parekh: Arri Alexa Mini, Arri Raw, Leica Summilux C primes and Angenieux Optimo Lenses, and we used the MOVI extensively.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Parekh: My lighting approach has always been about simplicity, elegance and naturalism (hopefully)! It helps tremendously to be able to shoot almost 360 degrees in a room or space, particularly when you are on a very tight schedule. We used the same “British continuous 10 hour day,” which I fell in love with during the shooting of The Zookeeper’s Wife. One basically shoots for 10 hours straight each day, without breaking for lunch. I found that we got as much (and if not more) work done than the U.S. 12-hour plus one-hour lunch day that we shoot in the States – mainly because you never loose momentum, and the crew is fresh, well-rested and never tired. Our normal shooting day was a 7AM call and a 5PM camera wrap! And there was time for a proper dinner after the day. I’d love to see this approach adopted in the US, as it made for a much more efficient and human approach to the workload.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Parekh: The Japanese baseball sequences were the most difficult, as we had only 200 Asian extras – and a number of them had to be bussed in from Vienna as the Asian population in Prague is not very large. We were constantly moving extras, placing them around actors in the deep background (the stands) to avoid heavy rotoscope work in post. It was quite a military operation and the AD staff did amazing work that day.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Parekh: I approach my work in digital as I do with film, which means realizing the look while shooting, through exposure and the proper LUT. We created a LUT in pre-production that DI colorist Tim Stipan, checked before we started shooting, and that made the DI really smooth. We rated the Digital Neg at 400, allowing more latitude in the the highlights. Tim and I spent a week at Efilm in LA, and I think this was our 10th film together. I was quite happily surprised to see what Tim and I did in the DI matched very closely to what I had originally intended to achieve.
- Camera: Arri Alexa Mini
- Lenses: Leica Summilux C primes and Angenieux Optimo Zoom
- Lighting: Available Light
- Processing: Arri Raw, Open Gate, Digital
- Color Grading:Tim Stipan, E Film LA